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the appeal of the esoteric

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  • Peter Staudenmaier
    Last week Dan raised an important question about whether a particular personality type is attracted to anthroposophy. I think part of the answer lies not so
    Message 1 of 1 , Sep 27, 2010
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      Last week Dan raised an important question about whether a particular personality type is attracted to anthroposophy. I think part of the answer lies not so much in personality types as in the factors that make esoteric worldviews appealing to those who are disenchanted with the messiness and complexity of modern life and its conventional forms of knowledge. Since there are many real problems with conventional forms of knowledge, esoteric alternatives have a sizable potential constituency.

      What figures like Steiner offer is a transcendent framework that claims to reconcile the scientific and the spiritual into a coherent and comprehensive whole, an attractive possibility for many people, including those whose familiarity with both science and spirituality is limited to standard stereotypical images. Within the broad spectrum of esoteric systems, anthroposophy carries an additional appeal because of its relatively complex cosmology and Steiner's appropriation of the vocabulary of the natural sciences. What this often leads to is a simultaneous assumption of intellectual elevation -- like other esotericists, anthroposophists regularly view themselves as privy to special knowledge which distinguishes them from the unenlightened -- and an aggravated resentment against 'intellectualism' and critical thought and the ostensibly materialist cast of modern science and scholarship.

      It seems to me that these factors are a significant part of what draws some people to things like anthroposophy. The same factors contribute to the remarkably difficult discussions between anthroposophists and non-anthroposophists, along with the usual esoteric attachment to Eternal Essences and Timeless Truths. From a historical perspective, there is an important contextual issue as well. In much of early 20th century Europe, particularly Germany, many educated people -- the demographic from which esoteric and occult groups drew most of their adherents -- were eager to find ways of getting around the increasing professionalization and specialization of knowledge. As scientific and scholarly disciplines became more established, more academic, and more exclusive, the notion of asserting various kinds of counter-knowledge took on a strong appeal. Esoteric worldviews capitalized on this general cultural dynamic. Steiner's work is a paradigmatic example, drawing both on existing theosophical and other esoteric traditions and on the popular science of the day. There is a lengthy historical background to such encounters of the esoteric and the scientific.

      For those interested in exploring these factors further, there is some very good literature on the subject. Some of the more accessible works include:


      Kocku von Stuckrad, Western Esotericism: A Brief History of Secret Knowledge (London 2005)

      Corinna Treitel, A Science for the Soul: Occultism and the Genesis of the German Modern (Baltimore 2004)

      Wouter Hanegraaff, New Age Religion and Western Culture: Esotericism in the Mirror of Secular Thought (Leiden 1996)

      Olav Hammer, Claiming Knowledge: Strategies of Epistemology from Theosophy to the New Age (Leiden 2001)

      Joscelyn Godwin, The Theosophical Enlightenment (Albany 1994)

      Mikael Rothstein, ed., New Age Religion and Globalization (Aarhus 2001)

      Alex Owen, The Place of Enchantment: British Occultism and the Culture of the Modern (Chicago 2004)

      Bruce Lincoln, Theorizing Myth: Narrative, Ideology, and Scholarship (Chicago 1999)

      Anne Harrington, Reenchanted Science: Holism in German Culture from Wilhelm II to Hitler (Princeton 1996)

      Sarah Pike, New Age and Neopagan Religions in America (New York 2004)

      Mark Morrisson, Modern Alchemy: Occultism and the Emergence of Atomic Theory (Oxford 2007)

      Heather Wolffram, The Stepchildren of Science: Psychical Research and Parapsychology in Germany, c. 1870-1939 (New York 2009)

      Kocku von Stuckrad, Locations of Knowledge in Medieval and Early Modern Europe: Esoteric Discourse and Western Identities (Leiden 2010)

      T. Konstantin Oesterreich, Occultism and Modern Science (New York 1923); the chapter “Theosophy – Rudolf Steiner” is on pp. 129-53

      Thomas Laqueur, "Why the Margins Matter: Occultism and the Making of Modernity" Modern Intellectual History 3 (2006), 111-135

      Keith Hutchinson, “What Happened to Occult Qualities in the Scientific Revolution?” Isis 73 (1982), 233-53

      Brian Copenhaver, “Natural magic, hermetism, and occultism in early modern science” in David Lindberg and Robert Westman, eds., Reappraisals of the Scientific Revolution (Cambridge 1990), 261-301

      Michel Pierssens, “The Turmoil of the Unknown: Unknown Forces, Paranormal Phenomena, and the Response of the Scientific Establishment in the 19th Century” Diogenes 169 (1995), 109-19

      Wouter Hanegraaff, “Reason, Faith, and Gnosis: Potentials and Problematics of a Typological Construct” in Peter Meusburger, Michael Welker, and Edgar Wunder, eds., Clashes of Knowledge: Orthodoxies and Heterodoxies in Science and Religion (Berlin 2008), 133-44

      Heather Wolffram, “Parapsychology on the Couch: The Psychology of Occult Belief in Germany, c. 1870-1939” Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences 42 (2006), 237-60

      For those interested in the notion of "experience" so often invoked by esotericists, I recommend Robert Sharf, "Experience" in Mark Taylor, ed., Critical Terms for Religious Studies (Chicago 1998), 94-116, republished as "The Rhetoric of Experience and the Study of Religion" in the Journal of Consciousness Studies 7 (2000); Timothy Fitzgerald, “Experience” in Willi Braun and Russell McCutcheon, eds., Guide to the Study of Religion (London 2000), 125-39; and the very perceptive discussion of Steiner's conception of 'experience' in Hammer, Claiming Knowledge, pp. 339-340, 348, 375-376, 403-404, and 418-428.

      On the particularly relevant topic of Monism see Niles Holt, “Ernst Haeckel’s Monistic Religion” Journal of the History of Ideas 32 (1971), 265-80, and Mario Di Gregorio, From Here to Eternity: Ernst Haeckel and Scientific Faith (Göttingen 2005).

      For German readers the following studies are helpful:

      Michael Bergunder, “Das Streben nach Einheit von Wissenschaft und Religion: Zum Verständnis von Leben in der modernen Esoterik” in Eilert Herms, ed., Leben: Verständnis, Wissenschaft, Technik (Gütersloh 2005), 559-78

      Helmut Zander, “Esoterische Wissenschaft um 1900” in Dirk Rupnow, Veronika Lipphardt, Jens Thiel and Christina Wessely, eds., Pseudowissenschaft - Konzeptionen von Nichtwissenschaftlichkeit in der Wissenschaftsgeschichte (Frankfurt 2008), 77-99

      Rüdiger vom Bruch, Friedrich Wilhelm Graf and Gangolf Hübinger, eds., Kultur und Kulturwissenschaften um 1900: Krise der Moderne und Glaube an die Wissenschaft (Stuttgart 1989)

      Heiner Ullrich, “Wissenschaft als rationalisierte Mystik: Eine problemgeschichtliche Untersuchung der erkenntnistheoretischen Grundlagen der Anthroposophie” Neue Sammlung 28 (1988), 168-94

      Andreas Daum, Wissenschaftspopularisierung im 19. Jahrhundert: Bürgerliche Kultur, naturwissenschaftliche Bildung und die deutsche Öffentlichkeit, 1848-1914 (Munich 1998)

      Ulrich Linse, Barfüssige Propheten: Erlöser der zwanziger Jahre (Berlin 1983)

      Ulrich Linse, Geisterseher und Wunderwirker: Heilssuche im Industriezeitalter (Frankfurt 1996)

      Gangolf Hübinger, “Die monistische Bewegung” in Hübinger, Kultur und Kulturwissenschaften um 1900 (Stuttgart 1997), 246-59

      Matthias Pilger-Strohl, “Eine deutsche Religion? Die freireligiöse Bewegung – Aspekte ihrer Beziehung zum völkischen Milieu” in Schnurbein and Ulbricht, eds., Völkische Religion und Krisen der Moderne, 342-66

      Frank Simon-Ritz, “Kulturelle Modernisierung und Krise des religiösen Bewußtseins: Freireligiöse, Freidenker und Monisten im Kaiserreich” in Olaf Blaschke and Frank-Michael Kuhlemann, eds., Religion im Kaiserreich: Milieus – Mentalitäten – Krisen (Gütersloh 1996), 457-73

      Rita Panesar, Medien religiöser Sinnstiftung: Der “Volkserzieher”, die Zeitschriften des “Deutschen Monistenbundes” und die “Neue Metaphysische Rundschau”, 1897 – 1936 (Stuttgart 2006)

      Paul Ziche, ed., Monismus um 1900: Wissenschaftskultur und Weltanschauung (Berlin 2000)

      Olaf Breidbach, “Monismus um 1900 – Wissenschaftspraxis oder Weltanschauung?” in Erna Aescht, ed., Welträtsel und Lebenswunder: Ernst Haeckel - Werk, Wirkung und Folgen (Linz 1998), 289-316

      Volker Drehsen and Helmut Zander, “Rationale Weltveränderung durch ‘naturwissenschaftliche’ Weltinterpretation? Der Monistenbund – eine Religion der Fortschrittsgläubigkeit” in Volker Drehsen und Walter Sparn, eds., Vom Weltbildwandel zur Weltanschauungsanalyse: Krisenwahrnehmung und Krisenbewältigung um 1900 (Berlin 1996), 217-38


      Greetings to all,


      Peter Staudenmaier



      > Sigh. Where did Rudolf Steiner say, "in an argument, don't address the
      > topic, denigrate your opponent instead"?
      >
      > Whence comes this characteristic Anthroposophical style?
      >
      > Steiner did advise his followers to avoid arguing about Anthroposophy.
      > I guess that leaves the Anthroposophist who wants to argue with
      > "Steiner didn't have any indications about that," as in "How many
      > Anthroposophists does it take to change a light bulb? We don't know,
      > Steiner didn't have any indications about that."
      >
      > So if it isn't Steiner, is this predilection an indication that a
      > particular personality type is attracted to Anthroposophy? A particular
      > humour?
      >
      > -Dan
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